Day out: Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, Gwynedd
On the southern shores of the Llŷn Peninsula and sheltered between rock and sand is the Gallery in the Vale of the Widow, a Victorian Gothic mansion devoted to Welsh art
Opulent but not oppressive, the Victorian gallery Plas Glyn-y-Weddw is moderated by the wooded coastal scene in which it sits.
Nudging up against the Church of St Pedrog, it peers into Llanbedrog Bay and is overlooked by Mynydd Tir-y-cwmwd. It’s here that a sculpture – now The Tin Man designed by Berwyn Jones – has stood for a century. Exotic trees beckon yet yield to the woods. In isolation the gallery would dominate. But in a landscape like this it goes native.
The widow in question was Lady Elizabeth Jones-Parry who, in 1857, instructed architect Henry Kennedy to design the manor with her art collection in mind. In a spirit of Victorian enterprise, it was purchased after her death by developer Solomon Andrews who opened it as Wales’ first art gallery in 1896. A long period of neglect followed the Second World War. In 1979, artist Gwyneth ap Tomos and her husband Dafydd rescued and restored it to reawaken an interest in Welsh art. Now run by a charitable trust, the gallery hosts monthly exhibitions and a permanent display of work by some 100 Welsh artists.
The building is comfortable, the grandeur gentle, the atmosphere relaxed, unlike the highly charged excitement of some city galleries. Hikers, holidaymakers and art connoisseurs mingle. The art is tribute to the diversity of Welsh talent. Pieces such as Three Masted Schooner and Lighthouse Scrimshawed on an Ostrich Egg by Carwyn Jones – who draws inspiration from the nautical folk traditions of Porthmadog – and James Naughton’s luminous, discreet landscapes, sit harmoniously in the Victorian setting. In spirited contrast are Sian McGill’s bold acidic acrylics, and Ruth Jên’s colourful, cryptic prints of Welsh Ladies. The windows are large. They invite your gaze out to the bay.
This year sees the launch of a project involving the gallery’s considerable outdoor space. Volunteers have already regenerated large areas of native woodland, and now fruit trees will appear in the garden. Arts Council funding will enable local artists to collaborate with wildflower meadow specialist Jacques Nimki and dance artisan Simon Whitehead. Work on a scented dance lawn will begin in May to boost community involvement.
It might not be quite what she imagined, but Elizabeth Jones-Parry’s legacy, through her realisation of a building suitable for displaying art, lives on. An exhibition space for the collection of one wealthy woman has been transformed by the hard work and creativity of many into a warm, Welsh, public-spirited gallery to which everyone is welcome.
Julie Brominicks is a landscape and travel writer who lives off-grid in a caravan in a mossy Welsh valley.